Class 1A Private blog: King’s Ridge OK being underdogs; Greenforest looks to finish drill

Top-ranked Eagles heavily favored over No. 3 King’s Ridge

All season, the Greenforest Christian Eagles have remained atop the 1A Private rankings, winning big and playing one of the toughest schedules in Georgia. Under coach Rory Griffin, there are championship expectations every season, and this year all they have to do is win one more game.

The Eagles (27-4, Region 2 champs) will play the No. 3 King’s Ridge Tigers (28-4, Region 6 champs) in the Class 1A Private championship 1 p.m. Saturday at the Macon Coliseum.

One way to quantify the Eagles’ dominance is to look at the objective MaxPreps computer rankings. They’re the No. 10 team in the state overall, No. 1 in 1A Private and own a 12.7 strength-of-schedule rating, the only double-digit rating in the classification. Three of their opponents from earlier in the season are also playing for state championships — Berkmar (7A), ELCA (5A) and Cross Creek (3A). The Eagles were 3-0 in those games.

Over the years, the Eagles have become known for importing and developing post players from Nigeria, giving them the opportunity to play basketball at the highest level and pursue the American dream. Tosin Mehinti, a class of 2013 center, Precious Ayah (2016, Miami-Ohio), John Ogwuche (2016, Kennesaw State), Ike Obiagu (2017, Seton Hall), Abayomi Iyiola (2017, Arkansas) and Victor Enoh (2017, Marist College) are just some of the former Eagles who went on to the next level after coming to the States.

This season’s roster features a pair of 7-foot Nigerian juniors in three-star DK Manyiel and Gai Chol, fused with domestic talent, including leading scorer and senior Jalen Forrest. The Eagles’ dominance this season, which includes a 15-0 record in region play, suggests they can beat King’s Ridge handily this weekend, and that prospect is not lost on Tigers coach Robert Martin.

“This is a classic David vs. Goliath matchup,” Martin said. “Our tallest player is 6-foot-6, and our next is 6-foot-4. I tell those guys, ‘If you beat Greenforest, they’ll make a movie about you.’”

Martin is an Indiana transplant who came to King’s Ridge in 2018, bringing The Hoosier State’s basketball culture with him. In his first season, the Lions went 4-19. Three years later, the freshmen on that team are now seniors, playing for the first title in program history.

Martin said there’s no groundbreaking strategies he used to turn around the program. His priorities were instilling a hardworking mentality, developing a healthy diet and training habits, having players truly buy into the team concept and, perhaps most importantly, bridging the gap between the lower, middle and upper schools at King’s Ridge, which teaches students grades K-12.

“This is my little slice of Indiana,” he said. “I had great mentors coming up, and if you weren’t building your program from kindergarten up, you probably didn’t keep your job long. I’m just going by the way I’ve been taught, and thankfully I’m allowed to do it with the support of King’s Ridge.”

The Tigers are primarily a 3-point shooting team, and junior Micah Hoover is 6-6 wing who, along with junior guard Isaac Martin, lead the team in scoring, with both averaging roughly 16 points. Their rotation is seven players deep, and all shooters have the green light. They’ll ride whoever has the hot hand.

“We have about 6-7 guys who can step up and play within our system,” Martin said. “On a given night, someone will score 15-20 points and another will score 7-8, and maybe those numbers swap in the next game. It just depends on what’s available within our offense.”

Unlike the Eagles, who have yet to be meaningfully challenged in the playoffs — their average margin of victory is 32 points, with the closest opponent coming within 19 — the Tigers have faced the prospect of elimination late in three of their four games, including a 59-57 overtime win over First Presbyterian Day in the semifinals.

Despite their odds to win Saturday, the Tigers aren’t counting themselves out.

“We play to win,” Martin said. “If we’re not going into the game thinking we can win, then we probably shouldn’t show up. Our mantras are, ‘Scared money don’t make money,’ and ‘Don’t ever bet against yourself.’ We’ll have fun and keep it light, but also realize this is a great opportunity to win the first championship in school history.”

In the Eagles’ locker room, it’s all about completing a mission they felt should have been accomplished the previous two seasons, when they finished as runners-up in 2020 and quarterfinalists last year.

The Eagles’ last title came in 2017, their third overall and the second of back-to-backs, with the first coming in 2013.

“We’re not a loose group,” Griffin said. “We don’t believe in that. When we let our guard down, we’ve experienced what happens. There’s no greater teacher than failure. We expect the best of our opponent, and we stay in the moment. We’re not going to make excuses or blame the refs. When we lose, it’s because we’re losing focus. We’re not trying to feel good. We’re locked and loaded, disciplined and relentlessly focused.”

In 2020, the Eagles were excited to reach the championship after beating Trinity Christian in the semifinals. They lost 76-55 to Dwon Odom and St. Francis in the final. Last year, COVID-19 wiped out the Eagles’ early-season showcase tournaments, and they entered the postseason without the growth that comes from playing that level of competition.

This season, the Eagles aren’t satisfied with reaching the championship, and Griffin believes they’re ready to break through. They’ve fought the battles they missed last season, and they’re two years older than the 2020 finalists. In preparation for Saturday’s game, Griffin brings up non-region road games won at McEachern Nov. 13 and North Gwinnett Nov. 23, saying the Bulldogs are similar to King’s Ridge and its shoot-first mentality.

Griffin sees the danger of a team full of 3-point shooters who have nothing to lose and an unwavering green light to fire away. Unthinkable upsets in March have happened before. In 2018, for instance, the UMBC Retrievers made history by becoming the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, beating top-ranked Virginia 74-54. The Retrievers went 26-for-48 from the field, including 12-for-24 from 3-point range.

“I don’t see it as David vs. Goliath,” he said. “(Martin’s) system gives all his players every opportunity to hit the 3, and if they’re making them, (our status as favorites) doesn’t matter. They have a kid in the paint who can neutralize some of our size, and they know how to make adjustments. When they’re doing their best, they’re looking for and shooting the 3, and as we’ve seen in March Madness, you can live and die by the 3.

I don’t want us to be the ones that die by it on Saturday.”